Pakistan's middle order comes good at last
On Sunday, Pakistan won a tightly contested game, showing their resilience to deny Bangladesh an upset despite Shakib Al Hasan and Nasir Hossain's counterattack. At the post-match presentation, though, Misbah-ul-Haq was not a satisfied man, and said that in every match his team was making the same mistakes.
The cause of Misbah's annoyance was the misfiring middle order which had yet again collapsed. From the security of 160 for 1, Pakistan had slid to 198 for 7 and needed some late swinging from Umar Gul to take them to the respectability of 262 for 8. "We should have made 300," he had said.
In the one-dayers against England, Pakistan had entrusted Umar Akmal with the wicketkeeping gloves for a couple of matches, though he is at best a part-time gloveman, in order to include an extra batsman. In the first of those matches, Pakistan had so many batsmen that Shahid Afridi walked out at as low as No. 8. Still, it did not prevent them from capsizing to 130 all out. The batting continued to fumble through the England series, putting together just one century stand. These performances came after perhaps the most dramatic of their recent collapses, when they cratered from 133 for 3 to 177 all out against Bangladesh.
So when they dipped to 33 for 3 against Sri Lanka on Thursday, their fans could be excused for getting a feeling of déjà vu. Younis Khan, one of the men tasked with gluing the middle order together, had been dismissed for 2. While his slip catching remains exceptional, the runs are starting to dry up in one-dayers, with his only half-century in 12 innings coming against the relative lightweights, Afghanistan.
Though the target today was a moderate 189, only the consistent Misbah-ul-Haq inspired confidence among the batsmen to follow. The others were the dangerous but mercurial pair of Umar Akmal and Shahid Afridi, the untested allrounder Hammad Azam, and wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed* who is yet to showcase his batting ability on the international stage. Time for Pakistan to regret going in a batsman short?
They did not have to, as Misbah added to his growing collection of ODI half-centuries as captain, and Umar Akmal kept his head as the pair added 152 for the third wicket. Early in the partnership, Mahela Jayawardene turned to his strike bowler, Lasith Malinga, to try and get the breakthrough. Umar Akmal, though, hit him for three classy fours in an over and grew in confidence after that. Misbah was initially tied down by some tight bowling, but he released the pressure with a big six over long-on.
It was only as the partnership neared 100 that they really started to let loose, taking Pakistan to victory in the 40th over, and securing the bonus point as well.
Misbah was now a more happy man. "It was a much-needed performance from the middle order, especially me and Umar Akmal," he said. "Most of our batsmen struggled during the England series, so I think this performance is really a confidence-builder for us, we needed that very much.
"I think the bowlers gave us an edge, especially getting them out for 188. Three early wickets, Sri Lanka were back in the hunt, the partnership really brought us back and the team got confidence from that, so it is a good thing for our team."
Another reason for Misbah to be happy is that the victory nearly guarantees Pakistan a place in the final, reducing the stakes in the marquee clash against India coming up on Sunday.
* 03.32 GMT, March 16: The article had incorrectly mentioned Sarfraz Nawaz. This has been changed.
Edited by Dustin Silgardo
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo